First Contact

First Contact is the initial encounter between two civilizations, typically the Starweb and an alien species. While it shares many similarities with the recontact of lost worlds, these are considered two different types of encounter. With first contacts, there is no shared frame of reference between the two parties such as a common history, they are truly alien.

History

While alien contact was realized as a theoretical possibility long before the Wormhole Rush, it was not until humanity's interstellar age that it passed from theory to reality.
  During the Second Interstellar Period, first contact practice was ad-hoc and haphazard, with each sovereign nation following its own playbook, and professional xenologists often ignored when they made recommendations. Too many pre-industrial species suffered the outrage of colonialism when spacefaring powers sought to mine their homeworlds for resources like uranium.
  The Stellar Compact, after its foundation, took these lessons to heart and established unified rules for first contact. Modern ones are governed by the Perelandra Protocol, and usually conducted by the Exploration Service.
“You’re an alien!” She invoked every Spirit Guardian she remembered, hoping they’d overlook her lack of prayers before realizing few, if any, were known for defending their followers from otherworldly space travelers.
  The alien, Arthur Benson, seemed to sense her fear and spread his hands. “Please, do not be afraid. We desire nothing but peace with your planet and its people.”
  Feeling as if in a trance, she replied, “I thought all that stuff about other worlds and creatures from space was just dumb stories.”
  Arthur Benson looked out the window. “Do you know what the stars are, that you see at night?”
  Velli raised her ears. “They’re suns, like ours. Now astronomers are saying some have planets.”
  “Then would it not be the height of arrogance to think yours the only inhabited world in the cosmos?”

Beyond the Sky

Terminology

The civilization seeking to begin the process of first contact is termed the contactor, and the civilization of its focus the contactee. In modern times, the contactor is usually the Stellar Compact (or, more properly, a subsidiary component of it like the Exploration Service), and the contactee a planet-bound species at a pre-spaceflight level.
  Xenognosis is a common word used to describe what happens because of first contact—the knowledge that aliens really do exist. First contact itself is sometimes referred to as xenocontact to further distinguish it from recontact of a lost world.

Process

Discovery of Contactee

PIA23408 by JPL/NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Remote observations can reveal the telltale
technosignatures of intelligence, such as
atmospheric pollutants or land alteration.
Identifying alien civilizations from interstellar distances is not easy. Humanity's first first contacts were essentially random, stumbling by happenstance upon a world which already had intelligent inhabitants. Later on, as spacecraft propulsion and wormhole technology improved, some groups began to place telescopes in orbit around black holes and neutron stars, using their immense density as a gravitational lens to focus light from a distant source. Observations conducted in this way could create detailed maps of habitable planets hundreds of lightyears distant, and discern industrial technosignatures by looking for trace pollutants in atmospheric spectra.
  Additionally, contact has been made when the Starweb's wormholes run into those of another spacefaring society. This happened in the Second Interstellar Period with the Baharn, and in modern times with the Quassep.
  Most sapient species out there, however, are probably still grinding through their hundred-thousand-year stone age period. Detecting them is quite hard, as they do not have the atmosphere- and surface-altering effects that an industrial society would on their homeworld. These species tend to be discovered by chance, when a habitable planet slated for exploration or colonization is found to already have inhabitants.
  A revolution in technosignature detection came in the modern age, with the construction of the Massively Distributed Interstellar Interferometer, a network of telescopes spread across the Starweb and combining their data to permit astronomical observations at far higher resolutions than before. At long last, xenologists gained the power to image early-agricultural civilizations digging irrigation trenches outside their city-states, or witness farmers felling forests to clear land.
 

Direct Observation

Once an alien civilization has been identified, the next step is physical observation at its location. For a spacefaring contactee, this is synonymous with actually making contact, as it is highly unlikely a survey ship could approach one of its worlds undetected. For pre-industrial and pre-spaceflight civilizations, a wormhole can be projected to their system and a stargate opened, vessels can then be sent through.
  This process is controlled by the Exploration Service, which only has a limited budget for first contacts and hence must choose which civilizations seem more scientifically interesting. (Or, alternatively, which seem more in need of alien assistance.) Often times a small probe ship, usually crewed by an artilect, is sent first to make preliminary observations before a larger science vessel arrives.
  Survey ships orbiting the alien world are hidden from its inhabitants by an observation shield, a thin layer of light- and radio-absorbent black foil, blocking the view of anything ranging from neolithic soothsayers to digital-age military radars. Braking burns of ships arriving in orbit are conducted with engines pointing away from the planet after first flying past, hiding drive flares behind the ship's structure. Once in orbit, survey crews will deploy a constellation of satellites, each with its own observation shield, to maintain constant watch of the planet's surface.
 

Ground Operations

Often considered one of the most prestigious and "exciting" steps of surveying is physical observation on the planet's surface. While satellites and atmospheric drones can take pictures, actually getting to know the aliens' culture requires getting up close and personal. Ground teams, sent down by shuttle, can plant small robots and listening devices to enter cities and overhear conversations, and collect materials like books, coins, and data-storage disks.
  Androids modeled in the aliens' form are used in later stages to interact physically, controlled by remote observers (often artilects) who attempt to integrate with major societies on the contactee world.
 

Contact Preparations

Industrial civilizations, in particular, rarely
take kindly to spaceships showing up
unaccounced.
Commencing in tandem with orbital observations is formulation of a plan for opening contact, if and when the time comes. Exploration Service manuals have many pages devoted to premature contact, as occasionally, even for an advanced interstellar civilization like the Starweb, something may go wrong. An onboard emergency may render an observation shield unusable, or a survey team on the ground may run into trouble and need a shuttle sent to extract them.
  Reactions to such a failure vary considerably. A pre-industrial species will not really know what a spaceship is, beyond being able to distinguish it as an artificial construct if they possess telescopes of sufficient magnification. Industrial societies, advanced enough to have a concept of aliens and space travel, but not yet able to go interstellar themselves, can get quite touchy and often react as if to a threat, attempting to shoot down survey drones or even launching ICBMs at orbiting ships.
  But if all goes according to plan (insofar as there can even be a general "plan" for interacting with wildly different intelligences), the survey team will gradually accumulate data on the aliens, their cultures, and their likely reactions to alien contact. Once this has reached a satisfactory state, the operation may proceed.
 

The Grab

Often conducted immediately prior to opening contact is what's colliqually known as "the Grab". Ground teams will fly down to the planet, find some aliens wandering about, and take them back to the ship. There, they have the alien presence revealed and are asked to assist in these last stages by guessing at their people's reactions and filling in unanswered gaps in survey data. Grab-ees are returned after contact commences, usually with a healthy amount of precious metals as compensation for their inconvenience.
 

Making Contact

Covert Contact

In some cases, particularly when dealing with civilizations beyond the early-industrial stage, it is considered best to make private overtures to the leadership of its major political units, apprising them of what is coming and asking how best to minimize negative effects. While in many cases such leaders wish to delay or even forbid public contact, the Exploration Service does not consider itself bound by this unless it reflect the general desire of the whole population. Political elites often have far different preferences than their citizens, whom they often exploit for gain, so in such a momentous occasion as this, everyone ought to have a voice.
  Once covert overtures are made, leaks are inevitable and so the operation must proceed quickly to public contact.
 

Public Contact

This is what the average Starweb citizen understands as "first contact" proper: Exploration Service ships setting down on some far-distant world, captains and Foreign Directorate diplomats coming forth to meet their counterparts. For aliens, this is the day when they pushed their cart over a hill, on the way to the market in town, and saw a huge white thing hovering overhead, disgorging flying machines from inner cavities. Or, when they turned on their TV and found every channel showing the same view of strange creatures dressed in odd clothes. It is only later, with much study, that they will learn how much effort and preparation went into it.
  Public first contact with the Starweb and Stellar Compact presents what is called an Outside Context Problem. There they were, minding their own business and going about their lives, concerned with harvests or taxes or funding for a new defense buildup, until, out of the blue, aliens appear and nothing is the same. Similar events destroyed cultures on Terra in humanity's age of seafaring colonalism, and modern xenologists have never stopped stressing the need to not overwhelm developing civilizations and give them room to react at their own pace.
  Spacefaring civilizations, even ones with relatively crude ships and wormhole technology, can be interacted with much more as equals instead of receipients of charity. In these cases, contact often happens at a border world between their wormhole nexus and the Starweb, which becomes an impromptu diplomatic center.
  Not long after contact, the Exploration Service survey team in question is often treated to a whirlwind tour of significant places among the aliens, exchanging this for glimpses inside their starship. Then, the initial turmoil and excitement dies down, and the long process of responding to the new reality begins.
 

Legacy

The eventual goal of most first contact operations is eventual incorporation of the contactee civilization into the Stellar Compact as a full member. This, however, is a slow process which will take decades if not centuries. At its core is technological uplift, the process of introducing Starweb technology to the contactee civilization to enhance its capabilities and living standards. This too must be done with care, lest the aliens abandon their science and new perspectives it might bring, and replace it with a copy of humanity's.
  Trade is a common difficulty at this stage. Developing civilizations have little in the way of physical products that the Starweb wants to buy, beyond raw resources, a fact which could (and has, in prior centuries) ended in neocolonial exploitation with aliens as a servile labor force for offworld mining companies, or in continued poverty without something to draw ships to visit. Their biggest asset is their cultural heritage: artifacts, classical works, even popular entertainment. All can fetch high prices in the Starweb, and the Stellar Compact has passed laws respecting the rights of aliens to their culture and forbidding its looting by unscrupulous traders.
  All the while, the Existential Risks Directorate watches carefully in the background. Too many alien civilizations and recontacted worlds have seized on interstellar technology and tried to start wars among themselves.

Issues

Some argue modern contact procedures do not go far enough, that the Stellar Compact should be more willing to intervene in developing civilizations if it means stopping a war or genocide, no matter how small. Others think these species should be left alone until they develop the technology to make contact themselves. The Perelandra Protocol, enacted in the wake of a first contact disaster, remains a subject of political debate.
  While contacts themselves are fairly cheap, as far as exploration missions go, the ensuing period of technological uplift is not, demanding considerable sums towards infrastructure and development on the contactee world, prompting questions and protests from the international public about why their tax money is going towards propping up some faraway regime whose rulers ought to be in the Court for crimes against sapience. The counterargument is that to contact aliens and then leave them with no help at all would be more than a little cruel.

Taxonomy

A common adage in the field of contact studies is that no two are ever the same, and since it's "first" contact, one must be prepared to encounter "firsts": things unknown to current science, like non-technological intelligences, neutron star ecologies, or planets with multiple indigenous sapient species. Some of the more unique types include:
 
  • Paleocontact: Contact of an alien species in its distant past, long before the present day. Eminent proto-xenologist Carl Sagan formulated some general principles for discerning whether paleocontact occurred, such as whether the contactee society greatly changed after the event, and if the contactors did not disguise their true nature as aliens. Some xenologists have even suggested this happened to humans in their prehistory, but no solid evidence has surfaced.

  • Necrocontact: Contact with surviving, often dormant, intelligent agents (like artilects) left behind by a long-vanished paleocivilization. Considered dangerous, as multiple paleocivilizations are known to have had technologies far in advance of the modern Starweb.

  • Cryptocontact: Encounters with something so alien even the basic fact of whether or not it is intelligent cannot be conclusively determined. Alternatively, a limited first contact conducted with a small portion of an alien civilization, like its political elites, while the general population remains unaware.

  • Reverse Contact: A planetbound/early-spacefaring civilization which actively seeks to be contacted by more advanced interstellar societies. Perhaps they are unusually scientifically-minded, and took up shooting off interstellar probes rather than fighting wars. Or perhaps they figured things on their homeworld were going so bad that summoning aliens couldn't make it any worse. In these cases, the more-advanced civilization plays the role of contactee, receiving a radio transmission or primitive spacecraft from the contactor.

  • Anticontact: Actions, such as the emplacement of space-based weapons, taken by a civilization to prevent others from contacting it. An anticontact civilization's response to overtures from others tends to be "Go Away!"

  • Higher Contact: Some innovative xenologists have pondered whether the Starweb itself may be under surveillance by a civilization as far in advance of it as it is beyond tribes of stone-age contactees in the Frontiers. If so, no one's found any evidence. Which is exactly what such Star Gods would want us to think.


Cover image: by Yuri_B

Comments

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1 Dec, 2021 07:30

This is an absolutely brilliant article, possibly one of my new favorites on all of WorldAnvil! Every aspect has been clearly thought through and described in detail, and quite frankly I may adopt some of the features of the Starweb's first contact methods to my own works if that's alright! Fantastic work!!

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M.J. Tremblay
2 Dec, 2021 01:15

Thank you! Please feel free to take inspiration!

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Nathaniel Phillips
6 Dec, 2021 02:53

Brilliant! I love your consistent formatting and the deep well of information. I can feel the love and connection you have to this world. How long does an article of this length generally take you to write?

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E. Christopher Clark
16 Jan, 2022 16:42

Really nice exploration of how First Contact works in your world, a concept that I think many others would take for granted and not spend enough time describing the nuances of.

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